Mrs. Peel and Me: A Story of Automotive Betrayal

Mrs. Peel's grill. Photo by Lauren Larson

Mrs. Peel’s grill. Photo by Lauren Larson

I own an old car; if my wish comes to pass, I will soon be able to say owned, as in past tense. It is a 1967 Austin-Healey BJ8 3000 Mark III, a long name for a car, so when I bought it, I renamed it Mrs. Peel, after the character in the old TV series, The Avengers. I chose the name because the car is both British and beautiful, and because when I was a kid I had an immense crush on Mrs. Peel. Just hearing her say aluminum in British—aluminium—made my heart swell. If I recall correctly, her wardrobe consisted solely of leather jumpsuits that zipped down the front. Only Ursula Andress populated my imagination as richly as did Mrs. Peel.

My car is light blue or, to be more precise, Healey blue, with ivory side-panels and chrome bumpers and trim. It has wire wheels, with chrome knock-off caps that hold the wheels to the axles. My car came with a large hammer for loosening these caps in order to change wheels, and for periodically tapping on the caps to make sure they are tight and won’t fall off at seventy miles an hour.

And that is part of the problem with Mrs. Peel. She is dangerous, on many levels, and needs a lot of attention, and ever since the day I bought her, I have wondered what on earth I was thinking. At the same time, I understand how it all came to pass, a proneness toward obsession being my single biggest character flaw.

She came to me via Craig’s List. I had been looking for a nice old British sports car, ideally a 1960s MGA. Every night I scoured the car ads on Craig’s List. I used various search words, including MG of course, but also, convertible; I searched as well by dates, 1968 being a particularly fruitful year. My search expanded. I started ogling old Jaguars and Land Rovers, the rugged kind that always appear in photographs of safaris. I widened my search and started looking at old American muscle cars, including a 1968 Mustang GT, the model driven by Steve McQueen in the film Bullitt. I also considered 1950’s-era Ford Fairlanes like the kind my grandfather favored and that tended to be the police cars of choice in cold-war horror films. I added old Alfa Romeos to the mix, and some Fiats and Morgans, and for one brief insanity-inflected moment considered looking for an Aston Martin, until I realized that even rusted and battered Aston Martins commanded prices equal to that of a three-bedroom house in Des Moines, Iowa.

And then one night, it happened. I was scrolling through the Craig’s List ads, when I came to one for a 1967 Austin-Healey. The car was lovely. I had always associated the name Austin with old Mini Coopers and London cabs. But here was this blue-over-ivory beauty, with undulating fenders, wire wheels, and knock-off caps shimmering like chrome croissants.

I fired off an email, asking to see it. I wanted the earliest possible appointment, to beat what I imagined would be a crowd of British car enthusiasts in plaids and tweeds arriving with a convoy of flat-bed tow trucks to haul the prize away. The next morning I drove forty-five minutes north to a suburb of Seattle, feeling a little like I was about to launch an illicit love affair.

The morning was sunny, which probably contributed to my downfall. The owner’s home was of that variety that is unique to The Northwest, as Seattle folk like to refer to the region. Lots of wood, and a palette of grays and browns, surrounded by tall cedars. And there, in a corner of a broad blacktop driveway, stood the car.

I did not look at it as I walked to the front door. To look was to ignite an unholy passion. I knew this about myself. I could tell the car was trying to signal me. Shards of light glinted off the knock-off caps like flashes from an imminent retinal detachment.

The front door of the house opened. I had half-expected to find a rough character in jeans and hoodie with a shifty gaze, because the Craig’s List automobile ads have been known to shelter all manner of low-lifes and scammers, but the man at the door was dressed in simple weekend clothes. Slacks, a casual shirt. He was a doctor, no less.

I heard the car behind me. The owner clearly had taken it for a morning spin to warm up the engine, which now clicked as it cooled, with the sound of a ring-finger tapping the side of a porcelain cup. Impatient. Wanting to be off and away, on the road. With me.

As we moved toward the car, I learned that the owner was not enthused about selling it. The story emerged in pieces. His wife was making him sell it to help pay the college tuitions of their children. They had cut a deal with one another. He would put it on the market for two weeks. If he didn’t sell it in that time, he would be allowed to keep it.

But here is the thing: He had placed the ad 24 hours earlier, and on the morning I arrived he and his wife were preparing to set off on a two-week vacation, beginning the next day–the same two-week period in which he was supposed to sell the car.

As I examined the engine–original, with only 44,000 miles on it–I heard the owner take call after call about the car. It was like sitting at a bar with my wife and having someone ask her for a date, or like the time in the lounge at the Seattle airport when a man awaiting a flight to Paris took the seat next to my wife and, just as I returned, gave me a vermouthy look and said, “Who knows, maybe she could use a Frenchman?”

I wanted to run my hands over the newly polished fenders. The owner and I took a test drive. He did the driving. Austin-Healeys have tricky transmissions—no synchromesh from second to first, and they require double clutching when downshifting from third to second. This one also had an overdrive activated with a toggle switch on the dash, like something James Bond would have had in his car. The engine had six cylinders all in a line and the sound emerging from the tailpipe was like something sung by Edith Piaf. I was in love. But, I have this rule—the 24-hour rule. Whenever I face a big decision, like buying a house, or committing to a renovation, I always give it 24 hours. At the very least, I sleep on it.

But the owner of this car was cheating on me even as I stood there trying to decide whether to buy the car or not. I had my checkbook with me. Which is interesting. If I truly believed in my 24-hour rule, why did I have the checkbook in my pocket? This is another aspect of my personality. I delude myself on a routine basis. Is that dripping sound in the ceiling something I need to worry about? No, it’s just a one-time thing owing to the unique angle of that particular rain storm. Is the low tire-pressure warning light in my regular car telling me that in fact one of my tires is about to go flat? No, surely it’s because the weather suddenly got cooler, thus causing the air in the tires to contract.

My better instincts prevailed. I told the owner I’d have to think about it. I got into my regular car, and drove off. But as I pulled away I saw the Healey sitting there in that driveway, curvy and beautiful. If cars could smoke cigarettes this one would have had one of those long skinny cigarette holders that actresses always used in 1930s crime films. It would have blown a smoke ring and winked.

Once I was out of sight of the house, I pulled over to the curb. I sat there and mulled things over. I called my wife.

“Should I do it?” I said.

“Well,” she said, “it’s something you’ve wanted for a long time.”

“So I should do it.”

“I think you should do it.”

“It’s a beautiful car.”

“You should do it.”

“Because you only live once.”

“What do you want me to say? Don’t do it?”

I turned my car around and drove back. The doctor was still in the driveway, and once again was on his cellphone.

I pulled up, got out, and said, “I’ll take it.”

His expression was not one of joy. Nor was it one of sorrow. More bemused resignation. His two-week gambit had failed.

The first breakdown occurred on my first solo drive. I was driving on a boulevard in Seattle that runs along Lake Washington, a perfect road for an Austin-Healey. I felt like Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter in the Hitchcock film, Rebecca, racing along in an open car with the soon-to-be “second” Mrs. de Winter. The car had a muscular feel, none of the mushiness of modern cars. The steering wheel was a large circle of wood about three times the size of a conventional wheel, because the steering was manual and thus required more leverage. Motorcyclists approaching in the oncoming lane gave me the palm-down signal of respect that riders of big bikes give each other. People walking the path between the road and the lake shouted, “Nice car, man.” I adopted the serious, disinterested look that drivers of cool cars tend to adopt, even though their hearts are swelling to the point where bits of aorta are poking out their ears.

I came to a stop sign. The engine began to flutter. I looked at the tachometer, and saw the needle flinging itself from zero to a thousand and back. The engine began making a breathy, gasp-like sound, and then quit. I turned into a beach parking lot and coasted to a stop in a parking space, as if that was my intent all along. Nothing to see here, folks. Keep moving.

I turned the key, but now all I got were the sounds of the starter.

I tried again. Nothing.

I was not especially surprised. Everything I had read about old cars, especially old British cars—in particular Jaguars—was that you had to expect breakdowns. It was part of the joy of owning them. So I reached for my wallet and pulled out the insurance card issued to me by my classic-car insurance company. My policy included free towing on a flat-bed truck, for we owners of classic cars never accept tows from conventional tow-trucks. Our cars must be carried like maharajahs on sedan chairs.

The truck arrived. I directed the driver to take the car to my house. A few hours later I tried to start it again, and it started in an instant. The delusional me kicked in and I decided that this first breakdown was a one-time incident, nothing to worry about. The day had been hot. The temperature on the temperature gauge in the dash had soared. Maybe this old car just didn’t like heat.

I parked it in my garage. My car shamed my garage. My garage is dark, with an uneven floor and exposed studs and joists, and is cluttered with unused bikes, spider-filled inline skates, Christmas tree stands, paint cans, plastic bins of documents from past books, a broken desk chair, half a dozen old computer keyboards and monitors, and a lot of other junk awaiting the next visit of our trash guy, the “Happy Hauler.” The floor was covered with a thin effluvium of dried mud and gravel that had washed under the garage door during the rains of the previous winter. Bringing my car back to this was like bringing a new bride from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to a tar-paper shack in the Appalachians.

My car longed to be in the garage of my neighbor’s house. Or at least it would have longed to be in that garage if it knew what my neighbor’s garage was like. My neighbor—we’ll call him Kevin—has a 1960s vintage Ferrari which he restored from the ground up and which once won a national competition for his class of vehicle. When he moved to my neighborhood he renovated his house and added a two-story garage with real walls, as opposed to bare studs, and a white-enameled floor and banks of fluorescent lighting, and a hydraulic lift on which to store the Ferrari so that he could park his family van underneath. This told me two things: that he cared about his Ferrari and, possibly more important, that the car did not leak oil, because no one would park another vehicle under a car that leaked fluids. Kevin even owns a couple of old-style garageman’s coats, like what doctors wear, only longer, and sometimes wears them when he works on his car.

For my next drive, I chose a colder day, and decided to take a quick spin to Whole Foods to shop for ingredients for dinner. When you have a classic car you seek out mundane errands, because as you roll along in your Healey or Ferrari or Shelby or E-type Jaguar you feel as though you are setting off on an adventure full of glamor and twisty roads and tuxedos and skinny women in low-backed sequined gowns, rather than plucking turnips from a bank of produce and waiting for the fish guy to acknowledge your presence, which at Whole Foods can take a while.

The five-mile drive to the store came off without a single hiccup from the engine. I parked in a remote place in an underground parking lot. That is another trait we owners of classic cars have. We park in remote spaces. The more boorish among us park on a diagonal straddling two spaces, on the assumption other parkers will so respect the grand vehicle before them that they will not whip out their keys and scroll the word “asshole” along your gleaming side panels.

I arranged my one bag of groceries on the passenger seat, with the baguette just so, then started the engine and adopted my serious, disinterested look, and sped off. Dusk was near; the light was failing. A cold fall breeze filled the car, a good thing, because Healeys are notorious for having driver’s cabins that get very warm as the engine gets hot. The evening commute was building. The University Bridge, informally known as the Roosevelt bridge, lay ahead. This is a drawbridge over Seattle’s Ship Canal that also handles a lot of evening and morning traffic. I sensed behind me the start of the kind of slow-clap applause that screenwriters try to build into every movie with a happy ending. Look at that guy; look at that car; look at that baguette.

And then I came to the traffic light at the other side of the bridge, where I was to make a left turn. I came to a stop, and heard that same asthmatic wheeze. I stepped on the gas. The engine fluttered; a bang blew from the tail pipe. The engine died.

I tried the ignition a few more times, but of course got nowhere. Judging by the sound, I was now killing my battery.

So, there I was, at the peak of rush hour, stuck at the head of the left-turn lane at a crucial intersection for this part of Seattle, the kind of corner that gets mentioned in traffic reports on the radio. “Some guy with a serious, disinterested look has stalled his classic car at the intersection of Lynn and Roosevelt, causing a fifty-mile backup.”

As luck would have it, a friend passed by with her two kids seated in the back seat of her car. She made the left turn in front of me, pulled over to the curb and then, when the light permitted, she jogged out behind my car and told me to take it out of gear, she was going to push it.

So, adding to my shame, this lone female was going to push my car. Now, I happened to know a few mitigating details about this woman. Once upon a time she had been a competitive weight lifter, and in fact had on one occasion lifted so much weight that a bone in her leg snapped, causing her to abandon the sport. So having her push the car was in fact not so unchivalrous. Two young men also now jogged out to push, clearly unaware that once upon a time this woman could have lifted both of them over her head.

I maintained my serious, disinterested look. The three of them eased me through the intersection, and over to the curb, where I thanked them all and assured them I would be alright. This was a classic car. A beautiful car, blue, with ivory side panels. These things happened. My friend the female weight-lifter drove off with a wave of her hand. If worst came to worst, at least I would not starve. I had my baguette.

I waited. The engine cooled slowly, ticking away just as it had on our first meeting. I watched the temperature needle slowly make its way down. When it reached 160 degrees, I tried the starter again. The engine caught and thrummed. Serious and disinterested, I drove quickly home, avoiding all lights and stop signs. I pulled into my garage and sat there a few moments.

I turned the engine off, then tried starting it again. The drive had brought the engine temperature back up to 190. The engined coughed, did that breathy thing, and died. One-ninety–that seemed to be the magic line. If the temperature of the engine rose beyond, the engine lost its calibration, fluttered, and stopped.

I called my Healey mechanic, Pete, and made an appointment. Discretionary trips by tow-truck weren’t covered by my insurance company, so I asked Pete if he knew of a reliable company that could get my car to his shop cheaply and safely. He recommended Dave’s Affordable Towing. Dave himself arrived with his truck. He was excited. He had never carried an Austin-Healey before. He ticked off a list of other classic cars he had towed, and told me that he posted photos of his favorite tows on his website, and asked if he could post mine. I told him he could. I admired his passion for towing. He lowered one end of his flat-bed, affixed a cable that ran from a winch at the front end, and lovingly hauled Mrs. Peel aboard. She looked good up there, all blue curves and wire rims and gleaming chrome.

“Take care of her,” I said, feeling a little like Humphrey Bogart on the airstrip in Casablanca.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve only dropped one.”

This was tow-truck-operator humor.

He drove away.

I would like to say that this visit to Pete’s shop solved the problem, but it did not. Pete was as mystified as I. Inevitably, whenever the temperature gauge read 190 or higher, at the next stop the engine would die. Dave, of Dave’s Affordable Towing, and I became great friends. He would pull up, smile, and say, “Hmm, I think I recognize this car.” And off he would go with Mrs. Peel.

But then one afternoon, when I went to retrieve Mrs. Peel from her eight-thousandth visit to Pete’s shop, Pete himself met me with a smile on his face not unlike the smile on Dave’s face—a smile of pride.

“I think I’ve found the problem,” he said. “Here, I’ll show you.” He led me to the car and propped open the hood. “So, I decided to approach this like a detective story. We traced the spark from the ignition to the cylinders. We found nothing. Then we drove it, long enough until it failed. We got lucky. Usually you can’t make an engine fail on demand. It has to decide to fail on its own. Conditions have to be right. So, we quickly retraced the spark. It stopped at the tachometer.”

He looked at me with a look that said I was supposed to share his utter shock at this discovery.

He gave me a verbal nudge: “It’s an electronic tachometer.”

I gave him my best ah-ha! nod, though in fact I had no idea what he was talking about.

“I’d never seen anything like this before,” Pete said. “So I asked my dad.” His father had been a Healey mechanic until his retirement. “He’d seen it only once or twice.”

I waited.

“Don’t you see—if there’s a problem with this kind of tachometer, you won’t be able to start the car. Clearly what’s happened is that somewhere in the tachometer there is a component that separates when the engine gets hot, and breaks the connection. I would never have found it if we hadn’t been able to reproduce it. Never. I would never have thought even to look.”

“So, can it be fixed.”

“Yes. And I did fix it.” He looked at me with that same prideful smile that asked, want to know how I fixed it?

“How,” I asked. “What did you do?”

“I bypassed it all together. Ran a wire straight from the ignition to the coil. Now, you may want to get that tachometer fixed. I tried to remove it, but couldn’t, without damaging the dashboard.” The dash is burlwood, in a lovely polished brown. “You’ll either have to get it rebuilt, or buy a replacement. I’d get it rebuilt. There are people who specialize in instruments. But, it’ll cost you.”

The car started immediately and this time, on my drive home, even when the temperature needle passed 190, the engine continued its satisfying growl.

By now, however, it was too late for Mrs. Peel and me. My trust was gone. It happens to classic car owners. Even my insurance company understands this. In one issue of the company’s magazine for customers, a writer observed that if a classic car betrays its owner early on, that owner should get rid of it, because the relationship will never be good again. He should jettison the car, lest he lose his passion for old vehicles.

So now Mrs. Peel languishes in my garage, as I try to bring myself to sell her or donate her to NPR. Now and then I back her out into the alley behind my house, intent on cleaning her up and driving her to a car-consignment dealer in downtown Seattle, but every time, once I’ve finished waxing her curves and shining her chrome, I look at her and smile and, with a serious, disinterested look, drive her back into the garage.

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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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